Christmas occupies such a large part of the Christian imagination that the absolute supremacy of Easter as the greatest of Christian feasts may get obscured at times. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an Italian biblical scholar, suggests that we might begin to appreciate how Easter changed everything—and gave the birth of Jesus at Christmas its significance—by reflecting on the story of Jesus purifying the Jerusalem Temple, at the beginning of John’s Gospel.
In this prophetic and symbolic act, Ravasi writes, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between a religion of superficiality and self-absorption and a pure faith, centered on his person. God can no longer be present in a Temple that has ceased to be a place of encounter, the “meeting tent” of the ancient Hebrews; that Temple, however magnificently constructed, had become a place of superstition and self-interest. In cleansing the Temple, Jesus is declaring that God is now present to his people in a new and perfect way and in a new “meeting tent”: the incarnate Son, “the Word … made flesh” who dwells among us, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He, Jesus, is the new Temple, and to recognize that and live in this new mode of the divine Presence one must “remember,” as St. John writes at the end of the Temple-cleansing story (2:22).
And remember what? Remember Easter. Remember the Resurrection. Through the prism of that extraordinary event that changed both history and nature, everything comes into clearer focus. Only a mature, paschal faith—an Easter faith—can perceive who Jesus is, understand what Jesus taught, and grasp what Jesus has accomplished by his obedience to the Father. Only in the power of this paschal “memory,” Cardinal Ravasi concludes, can we recognize that Jesus is the Christ, the Holy One of God.
Easter faith—the faith which proclaims that “he … rose again on the third day”—is not one article of Christian conviction among others. As St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15, Easter faith is that conviction on which the entire edifice of Christianity is built. Without Easter, nothing makes sense and Jesus is a false prophet, even a maniac. With Easter, all that has been obscure about his life, his teaching, his works and his fate becomes radiantly clear: this Risen One is the “first-born among many brethren” (Rom 8:29); he is the new Temple (Rev 21:22); and by embracing him we enter the dwelling place of God among us (Rev 21:3).
In the Gospel readings of the Easter Octave, the Church annually remembers the utterly unprecedented nature of the paschal event, and how it exploded expectations of what God’s decisive action in history would be. No one gets it, at first; for what has happened bursts the previous limits of human understanding. The women at the empty tomb don’t understand, and neither do Peter and John. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do not understand until they encounter the Risen One in the Eucharist, the great gift of paschal life, offered by the new Temple, the divine Presence, himself. At one encounter with the Risen Lord, the Eleven think they’re seeing a ghost; later, up along the Sea of Galilee, it takes awhile for Peter and John to recognize that “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7). These serial episodes of incomprehension, carefully recorded by the early Church, testify to the shattering character of Easter, which changed everything: the first disciples’ understanding of history, of life-beyond-death, of worship and its relationship to time (thus Sunday, the day of Easter, becomes the Sabbath of the New Covenant).
Easter also changed the first disciples’ understanding of themselves and their responsibilities. They were the privileged ones who must keep alive the memory of Easter: in their preaching, in their baptizing and breaking of bread, and ultimately in the new Scriptures they wrote. They were the ones who must take the Gospel of the Risen One to “all nations,” in the sure knowledge that he would be with them always (Matt 28:19-20).
They were to “be transformed” (Rom 12:2). So are we.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.